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California Supreme Court Overturns Car Seizure Ordinance
The California Supreme Court says cities may no longer seize automobiles from people merely accused of a crime.

California Supreme Court
In a 4-3 opinion yesterday, the California Supreme Court ruled illegal the city of Stockton's program to seize automobiles from motorists not convicted of any crime. Under the city's ordinance, police could impound the vehicle of anyone accused of using it "to solicit an act of prostitution, or to acquire or attempt to acquire any controlled substance." The city could then hold the car for up to a year without hearing, trial or any finding of guilt.

If a hearing was held, the city would take ownership of the property after the hearing officer decided the defendant was likely to be guilty based on a "preponderance of the evidence" standard, as opposed to a "proved beyond a reasonable doubt" standard. The confiscated vehicle would then be sold at auction, raising thousands in revenue for the city, with a cut of the profits being shared with the police agency that brought in the seized car.

This program generated significant legal controversy, spawning a series of contradictory appeals court rulings that disagreed whether the practice was legal (read decision) or violated procedural due process. Yesterday's decision settled the question by finding Stockton's ordinance in conflict with existing state law.

"A conflict exists if the local legislation 'duplicates, contradicts, or enters an area fully occupied by general law, either expressly or by legislative implication,'" the decision stated, citing precedent.

California law already provides a set of specific regulations limiting car seizure for drug crimes. Unlike Stockton's ordinance, seizure under state law is a penalty for the felony sale and manufacturing of narcotics, not for simple possession. It is further limited as a penalty only for those convicted beyond a reasonable doubt of a crime in which the vehicle was similarly proved to "facilitate" the manufacture or sale of the drugs.

"By way of contrast, the city's ordinance allows the harsh penalty of vehicle forfeiture upon proof merely by a preponderance of evidence of a vehicle's use simply 'to attempt to acquire' any amount of any controlled substance (for instance, less than 28.5 grams of marijuana, a low-grade misdemeanor warranting only a $100 fine and no jail time and not subject to vehicle forfeiture under the UCSA)."

Another provision of California law specifically prohibits a local jurisdiction from inserting itself in matters settled by the state legislature.

"Thus, under section 21, local regulation of any 'matter' covered by this state's Vehicle Code is prohibited unless the legislature has expressly allowed local regulation in that field," the ruling stated.

The same legal principle was used by the Minnesota Supreme Court in striking down a local ordinance that purported to authorize red light camera ticketing (read decision). The Ohio and Iowa Supreme Courts face this question as well as pending cases require a decision on whether local photo enforcement ordinances violate state law.

The California decision will not only shut down dozens of car confiscation programs operating throughout the state, but the precedent will also spell trouble for the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority which set up automated stop sign cameras earlier this month on canyon roads in Los Angeles. The obscure governmental agency also intends to set up speed camera ticketing, which is prohibited by state law (view ordinance).

The full text of the California Supreme Court ruling is available in a 68k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File OConnell v. Stockton (Supreme Court of California, 7/26/2007)

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